Tiger Woods had a 7:44 a.m. tee time as he starts he round on No. 10. Phil Mickelson was scheduled for 12:48 p.m. Defending champion Retief Goosen had a 7:55 a.m. tee time.
The conditions were making the players nervous as they approached the start of play. Agronomists call the grass Tifway II Bermuda. Those playing this week will probably refer to it in less formal terms.
The green, spongy rough is growing quite well this week, giving any shot that lands even an inch off the narrow fairways the prospect of becoming a major reclamation project.
'The longest first cut I've ever seen,' Fred Funk said of the areas just off the fairway. 'And the primary rough: It's chip-out rough.'
During practice Wednesday, shots that skittered into the thick stuff fell so far down into the grass, they couldnt be seen by people standing two paces away. So difficult were the conditions that marshals had to plant red flags at the spot where the balls were landing, lest the players lose track of their errant tee shots during their 250-yard walk to the next shot.
Last year, the U.S. Open turned into something of a debacle when Shinnecock Hills turned so windy and dry that not a single player could break par on Sunday.
Pinehurst has a much better reputation, based largely on a successful tournament in 1999. But much of that week was cool and cloudy. This week has seen temperatures steadily in the 90s with no rain, and another 90-degree day expected for the opening round.
If youre not careful, you can make bogeys on every hole with good shots, Vijay Singh said. Its very fair at the moment, but its very, very difficult. But it could get on the edge very quickly'if they dont watch it, its going to get over the edge in a heartbeat.
Singh wasnt alone among those showing concern about what promises to be a very difficult week. He was, however, among the very few who directly called out USGA officials in charge of setting up the U.S. Open venues.
I just want to know if they ever go out and play the golf course on Sunday to find out how difficult it is, Singh said. None of those guys are ever going to break 100, if they try, if they set it up like they did at the U.S. Open last year.
For the record, USGA championship committee chairman Walter Driver said he and president Fred Ridley would take that bet and that course superintendent Paul Jett is a very accomplished player, himself.
He knows exactly how a good player will play this golf course, Driver said. He sees it every day.
Of course, the rough is only part of what these players will face.
The upside-down greens are the other. Their humpbacked shapes make it easy for shots that look good to land and roll off. If the weather stays dry and the greens start turning brown, Funk expects more than a few players to experience more than a few embarrassing moments.
Youll see guys chip up hills and have the ball come back down to their feet, he said. Youll see a lot of people trying 8, 10, 12-foot putts for par. There will be very few putts out there where you can be on offense.
The tight fairways'slendered down to an average of about 22 yards across'could take some of the advantage away from huge hitters and put shorter sticks like Funk back into the equation.
Of course, the best are the best no matter what the conditions. Thats why Woods, Singh, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Goosen'the Big Five'have to be considered favorites.
I dont really care whos up there, as long as Im up there with them, said Jerry Kelly, a 10-year tour veteran who has never finished higher than 37th at the Open.
Almost certainly, the win will go to one of those who is among the most patient. Mickelson said he wouldnt be surprised if a score well over par wins this tournament. Nick Price, a longtime critic of the USGA, said you have to put your mind in neutral when you play a U.S. Open, and forget about par as the perfect benchmark.
The USGA officials insist they have no benchmark score in mind. After last year, its clear they just want a good tournament without so much griping. But the weather is hot. And just as azaleas and the Masters go hand in hand, complaining and the U.S. Open are pretty much always bedfellows come June.
Honestly speaking, I think this is the hardest U.S. golf course Ive played from tee to green and around the greens, Singh said. Its going to be one hell of a test.
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